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Amoni Hall will move this summer from one higher education institution to another, a process that can be disruptive, complex, frustrating and fruitless when credits don’t transfer and other unanticipated obstacles crop up.

But Hall, who is 20, will barely even notice the change.

She’s among a small number of students at community colleges who have been guaranteed seats at partner four-year universities, with the idea that they’ll go on to earn the bachelor’s degrees to which the vast majority of students like Hall say they aspire.

Amoni Hall just finished the two-year program at Valencia College in Orlando, Florida, and is transferring directly to the University of Central Florida under an agreement between the two schools that is part of a strategy to help students stay on track. “I think that’s a beautiful thing,” she says. Credit: Image provided by Amoni Hall

Guaranteed and dual admissions — under which students are accepted to both two- and four-year programs at the same time — are designed to smooth their paths. They usually include additional advising that many need to help them make the leap. This simple but little-noticed innovation is designed to fix a system that has stymied the ambitions of a staggering number of students — a problem that has only been getting worse.

Of the more than 700,000 students who enroll every year for the first time at a two-year public college, 80 percent say they want to eventually earn a bachelor’s degree or more, according to the Community College Research Center, or CCRC, at Teachers College, Columbia University . But six years later, only about 8 percent of them have actually done so, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center says.  

Since the onset of Covid-19, the number of students who have transferred each semester from community colleges to four-year universities has been getting even smaller, down by nearly 12 percent this spring.

Related: Colleges’ new solution to enrollment declines: Reducing the number of dropouts

“Our transfer system, or nonsystem, was failing students even before the pandemic. It was extremely ineffective and inequitable, and now it’s in even more of a crisis,” said John Fink, a senior research associate at the CCRC. (The Hechinger Report, which produced this story, is also housed at Teachers College.)

One of the biggest reasons is that it’s left to students to figure out the process, including what courses they need to fulfill the requirements for their eventual majors. If they don’t do that before they transfer to four-year universities, they often find themselves having to start almost from scratch, at a huge additional cost of time and money.

Guaranteed and dual admissions — under which students are accepted to both a two- and four-year program at the same time — are designed to smooth that path. They usually include additional advising that many of these students need to help them make the leap.

Hall just finished a two-year program at Valencia College in Orlando, Florida, which shares not only a guaranteed transfer agreement called DirectConnect with the University of Central Florida, but also a campus downtown.

“As the days progressed, they blurred together,” she said of the two schools.

While she was still pursuing her associate degree, Hall met with academic advisers from the university, who helped her stay on track to major at UCF in computer engineering, making sure that she took all of the prerequisite courses.

“A lot of people do end up surprised that there are so many prerequisites,” Hall said.

Related: Momentum builds behind a way to lower the cost of college: A degree in three years

Many credits typically don’t transfer at all. Students who move from community colleges to four-year public universities lose more than 1 in 5 of the credits they’ve already earned and paid for, the U.S. Government Accountability Office says in its most recent analysis of this process. Those who transfer to four-year private nonprofit universities lose more than 1 in 4.

“Students are just assuming it will work out. Why wouldn’t it? Why wouldn’t the credits transfer? What they don’t know until it’s too late is they have to retake general education courses, they have to retake calculus until they get a B,” said Fink, who worked previously as an adviser to transfer students at the University of Maryland. “The community colleges and the four-years aren’t set up to get students the information when they need it, which is earlier in the process.”

It’s not solely a desire to help students that might finally change this equation; it’s a steep and worsening enrollment decline that has four-year universities and community colleges alike struggling to fill seats at a time when the number of college students is down by 1.3 million since the start of the pandemic and by nearly four million over the last decade. There is also pressure to improve racial and socioeconomic diversity, which transfers from community colleges can bring.

Many students start at community colleges because they’re cheaper — they cost an average of $3,800 a year compared to $38,070 for private and $10,740 for in-state tuition at public four-year universities, The College Board reports — and often closer to home.

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While only a limited number of dual- and guaranteed-enrollment programs now exist — most of them too new to measure yet how well they work — there has been a flurry of additional agreements over the last few months.

In May, Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York and Morehouse College in Atlanta announced a guaranteed transfer deal. Johnson College and Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania signed an agreement for a dual-admission transfer program for majors in electronic engineering technology in April. Purdue University Northwest and Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana reached a similar agreement in March, as did Bergen Community College in New Jersey and Pace University in New York, as well as Bucks County Community College and DeSales University in Pennsylvania.

Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania, which in April signed a dual-admission transfer program with Johnson College for majors in electronic engineering technology. Credit: SOPA Images via Getty Images

The University of Illinois Chicago and the City Colleges of Chicago launched a dual-admission program in nursing and other majors in December. Clinton Community College and the State University of New York at Plattsburgh announced a dual-admission deal in the fall.

Also last year, Lehigh Carbon Community College began a dual-admission partnership with Moravian College, both in Pennsylvania. And Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna University in April signed a transfer agreement with Delaware Community College, that university’s ninth such dual- or guaranteed-admission pact.

While they vary, these programs typically assign advisers from the universities to students who are still in community colleges. The students usually don’t have to reapply to transfer or pay application fees or admission deposits. In some cases, private universities promise scholarships to participants who maintain certain grade-point averages — up to $32,000 per year at Susquehanna, $26,000 at Moravian, $25,000 at Pace and $20,000 at DeSales.  

Community college students “can start having conversations with a faculty adviser on our campus before they have their first class with us, so they can make the right kinds of decisions,” said Jonathan Green, president of Susquehanna. “With some helpful advising, they can literally step into the major here and finish in [a combined total of] four years.”

Related: As businesses hunt for educated workers, states are loosening the purse strings for higher ed again

Natalie Shirk is on schedule for that to happen. She got her associate degree at Harrisburg Area Community College and transferred to Susquehanna under one of its existing guarantees. “I was always afraid that things wouldn’t transfer,” she said.

Shirk started at the community college in the first place to save money, she said, but worried she was “going to waste money by having to pay for the same classes again.”

In fact, all of her credits transferred, except one, from an online gym class, Shirk said. She entered Susquehanna as a junior and she got that $32,000 scholarship. “I didn’t have to stay behind and be a sophomore or start over as a freshman.”

Natalie Shirk got her associate degree at Harrisburg Area Community College and transferred to Susquehanna under a guaranteed admission program. “I didn’t have to stay behind and be a sophomore or start over as a freshman,” she says. Credit: Blue Dog Imaging

Other, less flashy elements of such arrangements also have a surprising impact, advocates say. Community college students in some guaranteed- and dual-admission programs get ID cards from the partner universities, allowing them to use university facilities and participate in extracurricular activities.

They “help students build a sense of community and belonging with the four-year campus,” said Tania LaViolet, the director of bachelor’s attainment in the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute think tank.

Cuyahoga Community College students in the Future Vikings dual-admission program with Cleveland State University can take Cleveland State courses for free after they reach certain milestones, said Melissa Swafford, the director of Cuyahoga’s transfer centers and president of the Ohio Transfer Council.

“This is a way to introduce them to course work at CSU,” said Swafford. “The sooner they have that connection, the better.”

Exposure like that “makes a huge difference,” she said. “If they know where they’re going, they can see that end goal.”

Harry S. Truman College, part of the City Colleges of Chicago. The college launched a dual-admission program in nursing in December with the University of Illinois Chicago. Credit: Camilla Forte/The Hechinger Report

Promising though they may be, such programs remain comparatively small. At Susquehanna, for example, all of seven students so far have transferred from a community college, the university said. Other dual-admission programs “are just sitting on a website and nobody’s in them,” LaViolet said.

One program that has a lot of students in it: ADVANCE (it’s not an acronym for anything), which connects Northern Virginia Community College and George Mason University. Of the 3,000 students who have signed up for ADVANCE, 600 have matriculated to the university since the program started in 2018, said Jason Dodge, the ADVANCE director for George Mason; by fall, that number is projected to reach 1,000.

“We get them integrated into the culture of the community college and the university at the same time,” said Dodge, himself a onetime community-college-to-university transfer student. Meanwhile, said Jennifer Nelson, Northern Virginia Community College’s chief transfer officer, mapped-out pathways that lead from the community college to majors at George Mason “take the guesswork out of the transfer experience.”

That’s something uncounted numbers of previous community college students didn’t get, said Theodorea Regina Berry, the University of Central Florida’s vice provost of student learning and academic success.

“Having that guarantee really gives students a sense of relief,” said Berry. “They know what their path is going to be, in ways that many of the transfer students I worked with in the past weren’t 100 percent sure about.”

As she moves from her two-year program closer to a bachelor’s degree from UCF, Amoni Hall is already thinking about graduate school. And even if it is in part to boost enrollment, she’s delighted to hear that other colleges and universities are teaming up to streamline the transfer experience the way that hers have.

“I think that’s a beautiful thing,” she said.

This story about college transfer students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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Jon Marcus writes and edits stories about, and helps plan coverage of, higher education. A former magazine editor, he has written for The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Wired, Medium.com...

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